Monday, February 10, 2020

Talking to Maestro Paul McCreesh about his career, period instrument performance, new music and cultural education for young people

 Paul McCreesh (courtesy Gabrieli Consort)
On January 24th 2020, I had the honour of talking to Paul McCreesh at the Dan Hotel Eilat, where Maestro McCreesh conducted one of the concerts of the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. With a strong reputation in the opera house and as a conductor of many of the major orchestras and choirs across the globe, Paul McCreesh (UK) is  well-known as founder and artistic director of the Gabrieli Consort & Players. He is also enthusiastic about working with young musicians and broadening the public’s access to classical music.

PH: Maestro McCreesh, I see your repertoire includes a large selection of British music. Is this of your own choosing?

P.McC: You are probably referring to a recent production we did to celebrate English coronation music, where, of course, there is a strong English bent. At the same time, there is a tendency for a little bit of “institutionalized racism” in the music business, where you tend to end up being asked to conduct Sibelius if you are Finnish and to be asked to conduct a lot of Elgar, Walton and Britten if you are British. But, for me, it is all good music, great music. With Gabrieli, I also particularly love doing Purcell and always have done; it has been a part of my repertoire for thirty years. But, equally well, we perform Handel and Bach; my repertoire is very wide.

PH: Did you start your musical involvement in the typically British tradition of cathedral boys’ choirs?

P.McC: Absolutely not. It’s a bit of a joke, but in Britain I think I am almost unique to have come to professional music as a conductor, and particularly a conductor who spends a lot of time working in choral music, not having come through that tradition, that of choirboy singing in cathedrals or at King’s or whatever, then off to private school, thence Oxford or Cambridge. - the traditional route for British conductors. That was never my educational process and, even to this day. I think one day I will wake up and this will all have been some kind of dream. Of course, in the choral world, I have worked with so many singers who have been through that educational process. But, because of my very different background, I think I bring a slightly different perspective to the music.

When I talk about cultural opportunity, I understand that from the hunger of a kid who did not have great opportunity and who had to fight. It is a little harder than for those who have just glided through life on that conveyer be it of cultural production that creates the sort of musician that we have in England  - often extremely technically well-versed  (and I am the first to praise the excellence of that system producing good musicians in general) - but the cost of that system  is that it is a very small percentage of people who are actually involved in music, and that is a pity.   

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

P.McC: Not especially. My mother’s family was interested in music as amateurs and my father less so, although he has come to be interested in music through his children. I was brought up in what now seems to have been a slightly better age for music education, where it was possible to learn ‘cello at school, where at least we had many school orchestras, school choirs and local authority choirs. Unfortunately, that situation is no longer the case in the UK. 

PH: What changes have occurred? How do you see today’s music education?

P.McC: Music is becoming more and more a pursuit of the middle classes and of the privately educated. I think this is a real tragedy and, as I get older, I spend most of my time fighting very hard, both working with young musicians and with young choirs, particularly trying to work in culturally disadvantaged areas. I am trying to spread the message that young people are passionately interested in culture...if it is well taught and part of their curriculum. The problem is that so much of our cultural education consists effectively of one-off projects. It’s interesting when you look at many symphony orchestras and opera companies; we all have education programs and it is fantastic that we do that work, but it can never substitute core, classroom-based music teaching. The latter is the only way one can ensure that every child has the opportunity and that there can be a developmental process in music education. It should not be just a little ornament on the Christmas tree that you take off once or twice a year and eat the chocolate. For me, that is absolutely fundamental.

PH: How did you get to conducting?

P.McC: Sheer lunacy of youth, bloody-mindedness and arrogance! I even started conducting a little bit at school, just getting groups of friends to do charity concerts, etc. I actually found it quite fun to be able to work socially with other musicians. I enjoyed that process of making music, but never had any idea of what being a professional conductor would really be like. In fact, I started working semi-professionally as I left university, with some of the younger early music players part-time whilst working as a school teacher. The irony is that between 21 (when I graduated) and 29 (I think it was), I did five years of teaching, some freelance work and suddenly ended up with a Deutsche Grammophon contract! So, I had to learn and learn very quickly. I think what was interesting was that the reason they signed me up was that I was, and probably still am, one of the great “ideas” men in music and that is partly why I have the most success doing my own projects. Because I think the music world is actually quite industrial, I like to challenge - perhaps I like to be a little bit of an “enfant terrible”. I recognize the need to challenge and make people think in a different way. Of course, some musicians love that and some musicians dislike that whole concept! Conductors are always there to divide opinion…and that is what we do.

PH: You conduct opera, choirs and symphony orchestras, but you have also been deeply involved with the Gabrieli Consort & Players. Where do you stand regarding the authentic performance movement? 

P.McC: I am no ayatollah. I feel, for me, certainly in the very early repertoire - Renaissance and Baroque music - that it is very difficult to get the sound world I really enjoy from modern instruments. It’s not impossible and I have no philosophical objection to a good modern orchestra playing Handel or even hearing Bach played on the piano. I think with Classical and Romantic repertoire it is easier to get a good result on modern instruments. But for me, I do prefer to work with period instruments even in 20th century repertoire, because there is such a range of colours there and a range of performing techniques, which is always interesting to rediscover. But the reality is that I am a working conductor; most of my work is with modern symphony orchestras - that is where our musical world is centred...for better or for worse and in the opera house, where it is relatively rare to be able to use period instruments. So, I have to be fairly flexible and I am happy to be flexible. I think it is possible to give a good historically-aware and sensitive, stylistic performance of music on modern instruments. As first choice, it is always nice to have the original instruments in your hands but it is not the only way to make music.

PH: Do you prepare editions?

P.McC: Put it this way: I am a bit lazy. I don’t “publish” editions, simply because I am a performing musician. I do feel the process of research and scholarship is very, very important, but it is something that for me is part of the music-making and, if you actually publish editions, you have to spend a lot of time writing notes, comparing every single source in every obscure library;  that process is of interest to me but it is not fundamentally something I can afford to give the time to commercially. So, I often work in conjunction with musicologists and I certainly work consistently on sources. I do a certain amount of core research myself and like to work with a lot of other people to exchange information. 

PH: How does this all apply to the performance style of the Gabrieli Consort & Players?

P.McC: One of the interesting things about the Gabrieli is that we can be playing Purcell one day and Walton the next. You need to have to have a huge range of resources, of skills. The Gabrieli Consort isn’t just about me - it is actually a forum of musicians and scholars of many areas coming together to exchange and share information. That might be as recondite as researching the beginnings of the 20th century British orchestra – we are recording  Elgar’s “Gerontius” at the end of the season, working out exactly who the players will be and the type of instruments they will be playing; or it  could be going right back to Purcell and rediscovering different ways of playing the Baroque violin, with French bow holds and new articulation. For example, we have pioneered a new approach to real historic stringing. I’m sorry to be political, but a lot of Baroque orchestras are semi-Baroque orchestras. They play very nicely, but often the instruments are compromised and with stringing that is half-modern.

I feel if I am going to be spending most of my life as a professional conductor working with modern orchestras, many of whom play very stylishly, I think period instrument ‘specialists’ have got to be a bit more serious about the work they do and that means proper instruments, not a ‘uni’-Baroque violin for Monteverdi to Mozart. That’s not possible. You have to take into consideration the technical setting-up of your instrument, the type of instrument, noticing if there is a difference between instruments that were played in Paris or in Linz or London. There are so many permutations.

And then you will ask “Why do we bother?” We bother because, in the end, there are far more possibilities of orchestral- and instrumental sound than you will ever hear in a symphony orchestra, no matter how fine it is. There is something additional that you can bring to the party if you have this range of colours, this different feeling for phrasing, for articulation, for balance - all those things that help make Elgar sound specifically Elgar, Britten sound specifically Britten and Purcell sound specifically Purcell – and SO different to Handel, for example, even though Handel was working in London only twenty years later. 

PH: Do you write about music?

P.McC: No. I talk about it a lot. I rarely write. Again, it’s just time. If I’m going to write, I want to write like the best author or the best journalist and I’m capable of doing it very well, but I’m not a full-time writer. It takes me a lot of time and there’s nothing that frustrates me more than sloppily-expressed thought, so I would rather talk on radio or to journalists, hoping they edit it properly...and leave it there. 

PH: Do you teach?

P.McC: Not formally, but part of my work with young musicians is obviously within the teaching bracket. I sometimes coach privately, particularly singers, but I don’t formally hold a position...I don’t have enough time. I also think I’m a little bit of a maverick; I don’t really see myself turning up at a venerable conservatoire having to teach classes on a Thursday between 10:00 and 11:45. In fact, I  think a lot of my best teaching work is as a hired conductor to go in and do a project and to get people to think. I love that process and I think I am a natural teacher in that sense. For me, it is always nice to work with younger musicians.

PH: Do you write music?

P.McC: No. Not a dot. Just simply do not have the talent. Oh, sometimes I will do a little bit of completion...that type of thing. It’s always a great mystery to me. Dare I say it...I think I’m a very good musician (I hope I am…I have been paid to be a musician for forty years.) I have a tremendous instinct for music; it doesn’t really matter whether I am conducting Josquin or I am conducting Stravinsky. It’s all sort-of the same to me and if I do conduct a contemporary piece, with great sensitivity I can often put my finger on little things that might be improved or things that could work better. But, having said that, I am totally in awe of composers because they are simply a different level of musician. I am absolutely full of admiration for them - people who are able to create new music and particularly good new music. When you look at some of the new music that is coming out, it is immensely impressive. Inevitably, with contemporary music, there is always going to be a lot of average music, but, even so, the process of making music is a really important one and one we need to encourage. 

PH: There is so much new music around us. How should the listener approach it?

P.McC: We should be very careful not to judge a piece after one performance. As a conductor, often the music I end up loving the most is the music that doesn’t always grab me first time. I think that is also a very important point in the process of education. Music is a language which takes time to discover and if you listen to a piece of music and you don’t like it you have two options: you can throw it in the bin and say “I will never listen to that again”  (which might occasionally be the right response), but I think sometimes we owe it to ourselves, particularly if we are talking about music by a known, great composer, to take the time to listen and listen again. Some of the composers I most love now I simply didn’t understand when young, Elgar being one. Yesterday, I had a late-night WhatsApp conversation with a young student friend of mine struggling with Mozart. I understand why he doesn’t get that yet. When I was twenty, I didn’t really get Mozart, but at some age you will probably realize why people hear the name of Mozart and hold their breath. Even bad Mozart is always greatness! 

PH: You are exceedingly interested in education. What is your main goal in this field?

P.McC: I try to invest care and time in younger people and developing them, and not just as future musicians. I’m interested in creating people who have a sensibility to what culture offers the world and ‘culture’ I define in the broadest sense - it’s not just music, it’s not even only art, it’s also the culture of farming, the culture of industry, the culture of archaeology, the culture of nations. We are sitting here looking out a window, where you can see a part of the world that has been carved up politically, as we all know, probably rather too often. But, nevertheless, we are looking through the window at four countries. We are in a part of a world which is a crucible of invention and a crucible of great cultures, competing cultures sometimes, but it is that understanding of culture which I think is the only hope for the future, because, if we don’t understand that, we will just resort, again and again, to bombs and guns. I think culture is a really important thing; it’s not just a matter of being refined and it’s not just a matter of being able to mix with a certain class. It is much more important than that - it actually defines who we are as people.

PH: When it’s not music, what interests you?

P.McC: Walking, restoring my 17th century house, my family; I have two adult children who are always close to my heart and about whom I worry, probably unnecessarily (as is the nature of being a parent). 

PH: Maestro McCreesh, it has been enormously interesting talking to you. Thank you for sharing your experience and insight.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Talking to German baritone Matthias Vieweg at the 2020 Eilat Chamber Music Festival

Matthias Vieweg (photo: M.Vieweg)

On January 22nd 2020, I met with baritone Matthias Vieweg at the Dan Eilat Hotel, Israel, where he was performing at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. Born in Thuringia, Germany, he studied at the Hanns Eisler School of Music, Berlin, also receiving guidance from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hans Hotter, George Fortune, Rudolf Piernay and Peter Schreier. Matthias Vieweg has performed at concert venues and festivals in Europe and Japan under such conductors as Daniel Barenboim, Kent Nagano, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Günter Neuhold, Philippe Pierlot, René Jacobs, Hermann Max and Helmut Rilling. He is an internationally active interpreter of opera, oratorio and Lieder.

PH:  Matthias Vieweg, is this your first time in Israel?

MV: No. I am happy to be here. I love the country and enjoy meeting people here with different cultural backgrounds, to share interests and experiences.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

MV: Yes. My father’s siblings were all professional musicians. I grew up with music - with a lot of Bach. We did not listen to so much modern music.

PH: What was your early music education?

MV: I started with piano lessons at age five, meaning that I read music before I read words! I had a good piano teacher. By the age of 14, I had to decide what to do in the East German system, because my family was connected with the church and it was forbidden for us children to go to high school. But I needed to find a way to graduate high school. In East Germany, there were a lot of specialist music schools, so I auditioned and enrolled in one of them, where I would also be able to do high school matriculation. That was a step in the direction of becoming a music sound master (my ambition) as we did recordings there. We had classes in voice training, in piano, in conducting, history of music, harmony - a really good basic music education, much richer than the usual high school education. The school had a very good mixed choir, on the level of the St. Thomas Boys’ Choir, Leipzig and we did a lot of recordings; this also gave me an opportunity to get a taste of what went on in the studio there. It was a boarding school in the Harz Mountains and I graduated from there. 

PH: How did you start your career in music?

MV: By accident. I wanted to work in music production, to be a sound master, guiding musicians - that was my intention.  But with the changes in Germany, I needed to change my plans completely. At that time, in East Germany of the1990s, companies were shutting down and there was no need for more music producers there. So, I looked for other things I could do: I could play the piano, I could sing and I was good at mathematics, so I started with mathematics. But I then decided I was more the artistic type, left the maths studies and began to develop my voice. So, you could say I became a professional singer by accident. 

PH: Where did you study?

MV: I studied in Berlin, becoming a singer step by step, but had the advantage of a solid musical background from my schooling. 

PH: Do you see yourself mostly as an opera singer, a singer of oratorio or Lieder?

MV: I really love them all. At present, I am doing more concerts, opera and oratorio and less Lieder recitals, because, at the moment, it is really hard to do Lied recitals - to find an agent or a concert hall where you can hold a concert is really hard. I love singing Lieder because I also studied Lied accompaniment at the university, but I probably do just two Lied recitals a year. The rest is oratorio and opera. I like opera but feel I can not engage in only one discipline. It can be really nice if you take something from opera into concert performance and vice-versa. In concert performance, you have to concentrate on the music, build your phrases and to shape the music really well. If you also do that in opera, it is really nice; you can show the dramatic experience of opera in oratorio, because there is so much dramatic music there. If you sing only as an oratorio singer with no experience of operatic dramatic expression, your performance lacks something. 

PH: I see you won 2nd Prize at the 1998 International Bach Competition in Leipzig, and that you have sung in Bach festivals. Is Bach your most preferred composer?

MV: Bach is, of course, my number one composer. And not only for singing. I love all his music. Bach is really natural for me. When I hear a line of Bach’s music, I can feel it immediately. Maybe it is because I grew up with Bach. But there is also so much good music besides Bach and I am very interested in all other repertoire and other musical styles as well - not only Classical, Baroque, but earlier and later music. I am interested in good music! If music “reads” your heart, if it can reach you, it must be good music. That is my idea of music and not to discount it if it is not so rich or so sophisticated. It all depends on what the music tells you and if there is music that tells you a certain story then it is, in my opinion, good music.

PH: Where do you stand regarding the movement of authentic early music performance?

MV: I really like the idea of bringing the original sound of that music to the audience. As of age 14, I remember groups playing Baroque music in the authentic manner because, for me it was more natural than the overloaded Romantic style of performance. I love that, but sometimes I am really glad to do it the other way, with a large orchestra, large choir and a full musical sound. All this depends on how the music is done. If it is done well, it is fine. I am not strict in thinking there is only one way of performing Baroque music. And anyway, nobody really knows exactly what music sounded like then. There are books of correct spelling of Latin or of early English, but should we do Bach in modern German pronunciation? I think Bach would have been performed in the Saxonian dialect and I think we should sing that music in the Saxonian dialect. But I would laugh if I heard that. And after all the arguments over what is right and what is wrong in Baroque performance practice, people forget that every person needs to sense the music and find his way of performing it, even if it is not the best way. One can then always try a different approach. But I like the way the authentic artists produce the music - how they did it in the Baroque was much lighter, not so slow, more dancelike, more organic and not so overloaded with Romantic musical ideas. 

PH: Do you write about music? 

MV: Very seldom, but I like to discuss music. I have a composer friend who sends me new compositions of his in order to get my opinion on them. What I like is listening to that music without knowing what his basic idea is to first listen to it to hear whether it speaks to me and what I can find in it.  Only afterwards do I wish to discuss the structure and the ideas behind the piece with the composer. Of course, you cannot hear the ideas behind a piece if they are very sophisticated. Even in Bach’s music, you cannot hear all the complexity of the mathematics in his music. But the point is whether you feel the music and that you realize that there must be more to it than you hear the first time. If you listen to music twice, ten- or twenty times, you can pick up whether it is really good, each time finding new points of interest.  

PH: What do you think today’s audiences in Central Europe are looking for?

MV: I think audiences want more than a concert - they want a “performance”. What I don’t like is that the audience is over-inundated with things not to do with the music. What I really like are concerts in venues not normally used for concerts. You can discover really nice places and then find the idea of how music can enrich them. There is a lot of that happening now. It is really not easy to fill concert halls nowadays. People are swamped with TV, you can watch movies on your ‘phone, etc. It is so hard to get these people to come to a concert, to shut their eyes or watch what is happening, but mainly to open their ears and their minds to the music being performed. If this can be done, these people will love it. It’s an experience you can’t have with your mobile ‘phone or from watching TV. You need to sit there with the musicians in front of you. If you can achieve that, people will come back again for more. But I believe concert organizers will find ways to draw in the people if they offer something extra at a concert. Coming back to our discussion of the Lied recital, that is where you can’t have a large audience. Maybe it is too intimate a genre for some people. One has to be prepared for that fact that this music is not as overwhelming and that it has a specific kind of emotion. Only the big names manage to do recitals nowadays. 

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?

MV: I’m interested in literature, walking, discovering nice spots, even locally, and I love to travel with my family. My family occupies me a lot. 

PH: Matthias Vieweg, thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts on performance.